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|Rejoicing newlyweds Miriam Udel Lambert and David Lambert.|
In late May, before 200 hushed and expectant onlookers, David Lambert '98
and I performed the undergraduate unspeakable: we committed matrimony. Most
of the guests had witnessed the genesis of our love during our first year,
or had watched it grow during the next one, so the rejoicing was general.
But one silent spectator was indifferent at best, and challengingly skeptical
at worst-Mother Harvard.
Like any suspicious parent presented with a child's Intended, Mother Harvard
had some concerns. The "worthiness" of the prospective spouse
was never doubted, as we had both passed the test of "getting in."
But there remained the laden question, sententiously intoned, "And
what are your [pause-a skyward sniff, a curl of the lip] plans?"
While Harvard has no actual parental figure judging students who marry as
undergraduates, the attitudes such a figure might present were conveyed
clearly enough by the administrators who govern College life. Our only conflict
stemmed from our wish, as rising juniors, to continue living on campus in
the House system. This seemed reasonable and even logical, given the oft-touted
and unmistakable centrality of the Houses in undergraduate life.
|Miriam Udel Lambert '98 and Kevin C. Murphy '97, both affiliates of Adams House, are Harvard Magazine's 1996-97 Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows. Lambert comes from the Miami area; she is studying Hebrew and Spanish literature and is active in Hillel; she has also served as a tutor at the writing center, where she worked closely with foreign students. American history concentrator Murphy, from the Raleigh-Durham area, is cox of the varsity lightweight crew, and just completed a stint as editor of the 1997 Let's Go New York City Guide.|
We articulated this request in a letter to the dean of undergraduate housing,
Thomas Dingman '67, who informed us that only the House Masters could make
the decision. David met with his tutor, who advocated our case before the
co-Masters of Winthrop House, and I spoke with Master Robert Kiely of Adams
House. He then presented our petition to a meeting of the 13 Masters, who
refused it. According to the letter we received, the College had denied
us permission to retain proximity to our two-year-old social network because
we had "passed on" to a new phase of life.
But after handing us the initial bad news, Dean Dingman was extremely helpful
in securing for us the least inconvenient Harvard Real Estate apartment
possible. And we love our home in Peabody Terrace; it is nicer housing by
most objective measures than the Houses provide.
Even so, a couple of factors in the College's handling of our case still
rankle. First is the sentence in Dingman's letter that summarized the Masters'
decision. The letter listed three options: we might move off campus and
retain our current House affiliations; we might move off campus and transfer
our affiliations to Dudley House (which exists to accommodate married and
other "non-traditional" students); or we might simply postpone
marriage until "you have completed your undergraduate careers."
Evidently these administrators failed to recognize our decision to marry
as the carefully weighed choice of mature adults. The tenor of the letter-at
once coolly official and patronizingly paternalistic-seemed to indicate
that the College viewed our plans as the whim of errant children. Coming
from the institution that had promoted so many other aspects of my growth
into adulthood, this hurt.
The very purpose of a campus is to locate a group of people in close proximity
to each other, so they may conveniently interact, participate in activities
together, and share in a common experience. Ending up in Peabody Terrace
put us in closer walking distance to the Yard and the River Houses than
are denizens of the Quad. However, the message is clear: we are no longer
considered to share in that common experience. The decision implies that
now we have no interest in the undergraduate life happening 10 minutes up
My husband was particularly alarmed by the fact that we were no longer guaranteed
housing during our undergraduate years. If we take time off or study abroad,
our housing prospects when we return rely on a Harvard Real Estate lottery
process, with more applicants than there are places.
There is also an irksome suspicion that our banishment was a politically
inspired decision. Both Master Kiely and Dean Dingman mentioned to me the
College's policy of allowing only single-sex rooming groups in the Houses.
Since it is common knowledge that heterosexual couples (clandestinely) and
homosexual couples (anonymously) live, or effectively live, together, the
policy feels like some relic of a bygone era of chastity. However, if the
College openly allowed mixed rooming groups, it might appear to be tacitly
condoning unmarried unions, possibly provoking parent and alumni outrage.
Instead of confronting this inarguably thorny issue, the administration
has chosen to emphasize the fact that campus housing is already too crowded.
This reasoning rings shallow for two people who would have been accommodated
readily in the Houses had they remained single.
I feel our exclusion in small, strange ways. Every day, I place calls
to people in Harvard's telephone network. Repeatedly, I pick up the phone
and dial the last five digits of the number-as anyone hooked up to that
system can do. It's just a shortcut, the quick convenience of pressing two
fewer buttons. But I am met only with the expectant crackle of the phone
line; we are no longer linked to the network. It is a closed system, and
now we are out of its loop.
This isolation, this feeling out of the loop, characterizes most undergraduate
marriages, according to a number of Harvard students and alumni. Removed
from the pulse of College life by both geographic distance and the different
rhythms of married life, students have had to seek other support systems.
For many, Dudley House has provided that support. Dean Dingman explains
that the House, where he also serves as Allston Burr senior tutor, makes
a concerted effort to include spouses (whether or not they are affiliated
with Harvard), and Dudley activities are geared toward families with children.
Scott Ericson '94 and his wife, Suzanne, made Dudley the focal point of
their social life. Although Scott was 44 when he started his studies here
and Suzanne was working full time as head concierge at the Hotel Meridien,
he "made a point of being active within Dudley House" and even
chaired the House committee. Suzanne, who also made friends there, notes,
"We had to create support systems and friendships more akin to our
own situation. It was not the 'true' university experience, but it was worthwhile."
For other married undergraduates, that sense of connection comes from outside
Harvard altogether. Michelle Hickman '94 and her husband, Troy '96, describe
how they turned away from the College for social sustenance, relying instead
on their church, work, and other friends who were Harvard graduates. "We
felt very isolated," says Troy. "I came to know very few persons
outside of my concentration because I didn't have the House system to facilitate
such friendships." The Hickmans' detachment from campus was furthered
by their living in East Cambridge, as Harvard property rents were prohibitively
expensive. Two years of 15-minute bus rides and 10-minute bike rides "made
Leverett Towers seem wonderful" to Troy in retrospect.
Harvard cannot fairly be expected to offset the financial burdens of independent
living. According to director of undergraduate financial aid James Miller,
the College's policy is to treat married students no differently from single
ones in allotting financial aid: the responsibility for Harvard expenses
is still borne by each individual set of parents. However, the couples themselves
face special problems: the need for housing in or near Cambridge for 12
and not nine months a year, and the possibility that one spouse may be caring
for children and thus unable to work.
In our case, with both of us enrolled, the housing costs for term-time just
equal market rents off campus. The monthly rent for our one-bedroom apartment
is $804-almost exactly what we would pay in College room costs for the 1996-97
academic year, a charge of about $400 apiece each month. It works beautifully,
except that we have had to cover three months of summer rent as well.
Many married students feel the weight of emotional and psychological
challenges more heavily than pragmatic obstacles. The demands of a marriage
can divert energy from academic pursuits, and vice versa. Scott Ericson
explains, "Marriage means another person who expects a quality relationship,
while Harvard expects your blood and your first-born male child." However,
it is not necessarily the specific academic demands that can threaten married
life, but the pervasive intensity of the place. Such was the experience
of Danette Engelman '95, an older student who came to the College married
and left divorced. "It's hard to watch [your spouse] be accepted and
immersed," she says of her husband, who was not involved in her daily
student experiences. "Harvard affected us in recondite ways."
And for younger students who marry during their college careers, there is
the burden of people's reactions. In addition to the families involved,
students must contend with their peers', professors', and advisers' opinions.
Those who knew David and me well recognized marriage as the natural culmination
of our relationship. Initially, though, most of our more casual acquaintances
Troy and Michelle Hickman also faced a number of discouraging reactions,
which trebled when their first child was born during Troy's senior year.
Young marriage and parenthood are uncommon at Harvard, Troy points out.
"There was generally a look of thinly veiled disapproval or unbelief,"
says Troy, "a horror at the idea of being a parent and an undergraduate."
When Michelle went to her House office and the registrar's office to change
her name after the wedding, the women in both offices advised her strongly
not to do so. The Hickmans grew skeptical about Harvard's professed goal
of embracing diversity; according to Troy, the College "didn't care
about any aspects of our lives apart from academics and career preparation."
Despite these impediments, a few students each year do choose marriage as
undergraduates. As Dean Dingman points out, "Wonderful, sustaining
relationships can begin at any point in your life." To this I would
add: the love that wells up from those devoted relationships can inform
and enhance every other aspect of students' lives. It can be focused so
that it promotes academic, interpersonal, and spiritual growth. It can benefit
the community and the families in which it blooms. Harvard can choose to
be that community by adopting a more inclusive policy toward married students
living on campus.
In the last paragraph of the handbook that the College sends to all parents
of first-years, it advises moms and dads not to be alarmed if their children
pursue unexpected paths at Harvard. The book reminds them that the children
are now sailing their own ships, and that parents should "Come along...but
keep in mind that it is a new voyage, someone else's voyage." To the
extent that Mother Harvard is also an exacting parent, she should heed her
own counsel and support the various courses that her children take, even
when two of those courses converge.
Miriam Udel Lambert '98 may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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